Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.
This post originally appeared on freedomcollection.org. The Freedom Collection blog will periodically feature a profile of an advocate who we believe deserves greater attention. For this first Profile in Freedom, we have decided to highlight an activist who is working to bring democratic change to Iran.
by Jordan Chandler Hirsch
As Saeed Ghasseminejad stopped his car near the University of Tehran, three men approached waving their hands furiously. They must be fellow students, he thought, desperate to flee Iranian security forces stamping out a student protest against the regime in June 2003. As soon as he unlocked his doors, a gun was pressed to his head. “Drive!” Saeed’s captors soon shoved him in the back and sped to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. There, joined by thousands of students similarly rounded up, he spent a month in solitary confinement. “I developed a reputation among the jailors,” he told me. “They came to see the guy that the Revolutionary Guards took to jail in his own car!”
What landed him in Evin was his reputation for championing liberal ideas. Raised in a middle class family, Saeed sensed the oppression around him but could not identify its source. But once accepted into an honors program, he encountered Western classics—in particular Karl Popper—that helped him see the rot. Reading The Open Society and its Enemies, he said, “brought the first gust of spring after a long winter. I realized I was living in a society governed by enemies of free expression.” Hungry for more, Saeed consumed the likes of Locke and Solzhenitsyn, sharing their ideas in the opinion pages of student magazines. Iranian officials sentenced him to two years in jail with a five-year deferral, hoping that the threat of imprisonment would silence him. “It’s an effective way of shutting down dissidents,” he said, a dictator’s Sword of Damocles.
But Saeed continued to take risks. A year later, he helped found the Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates, a group dedicated to bringing the formative works of Saeed’s youth to Iranian students everywhere. Members compiled notes on writers such as John Locke and von Mises into a short hand of liberal thought distributed as booklets on college campuses. “Through these books we were showing why free speech is good, discussing the relationship between economic and political development, introducing into the conversation what it means to be a liberal,” Saeed told me. The notes caught on and ILSG gained tens of thousands of followers—today, one of its Facebook campaigns has over 44,000 subscribers.
But the regime’s decimation of the Green Movement in 2009 also crushed ILSG’s momentum. Saeed, who came to the United States in 2008 for graduate studies, directed the group to hunker down by remaining in contact with supporters and promoting low-key initiatives, such as good governance. While not optimistic, he hopes that Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential elections this month will create space for ILSG to operate. “There won’t be a fundamental change,” he said, “but we’ll look to take advantage of whatever openness it brings.” If Rouhani eases repression even slightly, ILSG will seek out new followers and print booklets again to attract new followers.
Saeed believes this combination of outside pressure and internal revolution is the best formula for bringing down the regime and creating a more democratic system. Iranian liberals crave the support of Western nations and the models they have to offer. The books are a start. “I don’t think reading Mill will lead to political change—that comes from political activities,” he told me. “But it can get people interested and give them a basic vocabulary to unite behind.” The next time liberal-minded Iranians rise against the regime, he said, “the world will need to choose between the government and the people.” Depending on that choice, Saeed may be able to fulfill his dream of being driven around Tehran once again—not as a prisoner, but an elected official.
Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a special contributor to Freedom Collection blog. Formerly a Staff Editor at Foreign Affairs, he has published opinion pieces in numerous national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He is currently a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School.
Chinese Prisoner’s Death Holds a Message for Americans and China
Liu Xiaobo, China’s most prominent dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner died this week. His death holds a message for Americans and for China.
Release of Chinese Political Prisoner a Timely Reminder to Support Freedom Advocates Abroad
More than half the world’s population still lives in countries where basic political rights and civil liberties are only partly respected, if at all.
Bringing Freedom to the Forefront of 21st Century Politics
Is the global liberal democratic order in danger? Purposefully constructed in the aftermath of World War II, this order -- and the American leadership that is central to its success --has contributed to securing peace and expanding prosperity in the United States and around the world. Today, that order appears to be dissolving. This crisis is not new or sudden; it has been mounting for several years. Global challenges like authoritarian capitalism, violent extremism, demographic pressures, and displaced populations have placed global freedom in decline. Fraying traditional alliances united by core values of freedom are increasingly weak to respond. It is alarming that the downdraft in democratic resilience over the past decade or more includes countries that have long been part of the consolidated democratic West. This is democratic deconsolidation. In much of the Western world, we see a rise in demagogic populism, illiberalism, nationalism, protectionism, and waning conf
The Importance of Speaking Truth to Tyrants
What the president of the United States says matters. Even during the realpolitik policies of détente under Richard Nixon, it was still clear that American policy was based on a set of core values. Nixon’s practical goals of reaching deals with America’s adversaries was never based on the “great chemistry” with himself or praising the Soviet or Communist Chinese leadership doing a “fantastic job.” When the president aligns himself with the autocrats and dictators, he aligns America with their oppression. He sends a message that corruption and brutality are not our concern. Contrast that with how Ronald Reagan defied much of world opinion in calling out the brutality of the Soviet system. Natan Sharansky, then a refusenik imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, later wrote for the Weekly Standard of his thoughts on Reagan’s pronouncement that the USSR was an evil empire: “It was the great, brilliant moment whe